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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

A Dream of Two Wars

Jerry Gold, Black Heron Press

For a number of years after I returned to the United States from Viet Nam, I had a recurring nightmare. In it, I was somewhere in the Middle East, sand and scrub all around, white sky, boiling sun. I had escaped, alone, from a fortress. The fortress, I remember, was the color of the sand, and perhaps was built of sand, sand compacted, made concrete -like. The fortress was very old. I remember feeling that it had been constructed, or might have been, by the Crusaders. As I said, I had escaped from it, alone. My captors, whoever they were, had not tortured me, though I believe they did in some way mistreat me. But this, the mistreatment, happened before the dream began. At least, I have no memory of dream-experiencing maltreatment at the hands of an enemy. Somehow I escaped. I think I killed somebody in my escape. I believe I killed him my hands. Writing this, I feel again that heart-pumping, nickel-tasting, adrenalin rush that I remember from my dream when I held my hands just so.

Now I was outside the fortress. Its wall were very high and sloped slightly inward and stretched for hundreds of meters before making a right-angle turn, before becoming other walls. I was in uniform - I do not remember what the uniform looked like - for I was in the army, the American army, I assume, though perhaps not. I was armed with only a .22 caliber rifle, hardly a weapon at all. I do not know how I acquired it.

I was on the outside, having escaped, and I was essentially weaponlessrather, I was armed with a weapon large enough to anger the enemy but not so large that I could defend myself with itand I had to get back inside. For I had left my friends inside. They were prisoners and were being mistreated and worse, and while I had done my soldier's duty by escaping when I had the opportunity, I knew I had to go back and try to get them out. And, as I say, I was armed with something that only resembled a weapon, and I was terrified.

I was so scared I could hardly bear it. My heart was racing and my breath came so fast I could not catch enough air to fill my lungs, and the sweat, the sweat, I was rolling in it, it slicked my hair, it salted my eyes, it flowed off the tips of my fingers like melt in the sun. I knew I was going to die. I had left my friends and I was going to go back for them and I was going to die inside the fortress without freeing them.

Of course, I knew what the dream was about even if I did not understand the meanings behind all of its symbols. It was survivor guilt. Most of the men I knew in Viet Nam had died there. If I were to attempt to rescue them from what? from death? Who, really, was the enemy? - I, too, would die. Yet I had to try. I searched for a way back into the fortress.

I think I made it to the top of the wall once or twice. But I never, ever, got any farther. Not once. Always, without fail, I woke up or was shouted awake by my wife (I had warned her not to touch me when I was in a nightmare; to her credit, who continued to sleep with me). I did not die. Instead, we got up, took the sheets off the bed, put on dry ones, I towelled off, and we went back to bed.

I think I understand why the dream was set in the Middle East. I am aware of the notion that horrific dreams are often situated in places unusual to the dreamer. I had never been to the Middle East. But I had wanted to go. There were two wars in the Middle East during the period of our war in Indochina. That, I believe, is why I wanted to go there. To be a soldier again, but, somewhere where the reasons for fighting were clear, or seemed to be, and the war would not last forever. I wanted to fight in the Middle East in order to gain back a part of myself that had died in Viet Nam, though I know I would lose the rest of myself.

If the purpose of my dream was to reconstruct my past in such a way that I could accept it, was the nightmare also one of a collective kind? Are we revising our history in order to mythologize it, to make it into something that portrays us as we would like to see ourselves? "We could have won in Viet Nam if we had been allowed to fight." "We are a kinder, gentler people . . . ."

This myth, I think, has propelled us into the desert. It is a myth become hypothesis: we are testing it, to determine if it is the right myth, the one that will tell us that we are a righteous and invincible people once again. About one thing President Bush and his Defense Department spokesmen are right: the Persian Gulf is not Viet Nam.

But we are in the Persian Gulf because we were in Viet Nam.

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